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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Clean Power Plan Hearing Adjourns With More Questions Than Answers

Montana Capitol, Helena, MT.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol, Helena, MT.

It was a rare event Thursday at the Montana capitol: A public hearing brought together a panel of state lawmakers and an audience packed with coal and electric industry representatives, yet very few people had anything to say. Even the group’s chairman, Butte Democratic Senator Jim Keane, found it odd:

"We usually have a room full of people and they will comment because they're either proponents or opponents and I find it highly unusual that we have a room for people who don’t want to comment. I just I just find that interesting," Keane said.

That may be because the topic of the hearing was the Clean Power Plan, a proposal from the Obama Administration to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants 32 percent by the year 2030, to fight climate change. 

Doug Hardy, a representative of Montana’s Electric Power Co-ops, admitted he didn’t know much about the proposal -- just enough to be worried.

"It has the potential to have a very very serious effect on our ability to run the plants at our lowest cost, and we could have to shut down and run others. But until we see more on the rule and what our options are, there so many parts of this rule on tradable credits, and what the what the price tag would be with them. It's hard to say doomsday right now but if there's a lot of us very fearful."

Keane decided if electric producers didn’t have much to say, maybe someone from the mining industry would, so he turned to Bud Clinch, director of the Montana Coal Council.

"Since you represent the mines, could you describe your issues that may be the same and may be different from the generators," Keane asked.

"First off I'd say Mr Chairman that I have never been known to be timid," Clinch responded. "I guess in response to your earlier question. I believe that the six companies that I represent would support that this committee adopting a position to push back against the rule."

State officials, coal mining interests and electric utilities all face the same dilemma: the EPA has announced the new rule, which could impose emission controls or force some power plants to close, and it’s set a deadline one year from now for states to submit their plans for compliance. 

But the rule has not been officially published with all the relevant details spelled out. So while states and industry leaders have been given a due date, they’re not sure precisely what their assignment is.

Republican State Senator Pat Connell of Hamilton tried to get Todd O’Hare of the coal mining firm Cloud Peak Energy to tell what he’s heard from his customers, coal-burning electric utilities.

Connell asked, "What have been the public utterances so far of these plants that are your clients, or those states, of the circumstance that they're facing if they can even meet these goals?"

"They’re in the same situation that we are here in Montana," O'Hare said, "and the fact that they're still wading through the rule. And so they don't know how they're going to comply with it. I mean every state is going to have to reduce the amount of coal that it consumes, period."

O’Hare told lawmakers they should prepare for the new reality, in which coal plays a smaller role, and the economies of coal-mining communities will have to adjust.

“We're going to be consuming less coal in this country. It’s  not going to go away --  it’s just going to matter where it’s going to come from, and Montana's going to be right in the crosshairs of that," O'Hare said.

But that advice is no help to lawmakers searching for a way to respond to the Clean Power Plan. The many unknowns they face include more than the details of this as-yet-unpublished rule. Will state attorney general Tim Fox fight the proposal in court, as he did with new clean water rules earlier this year, and will the next president-whoever that is- keep the rule, or throw it out after taking office in sixteen months?

Chairman Keane turned to state air resources bureau chief Dave Klemp.

"So isn't it kind of tough even to put a group together to say what are we going to do," Keane asked

"I think you're exactly right," Klemp said. "I think it's one of those situations where, what are you going to do, but we need to do something.”

The panel will meet again in January. They hope that by then they will have a full description of the new rule, as well as a detailed response from the Governor’s Office, which so far has only said how "disappointed" it is with the president’s Clean Power Plan.

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